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This too is Pakistani Literature


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-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

In Pakistani literature, an undeclared, wordless apartheid has been practiced against progressive literature, or what is known the world over as engaged literature. Consequently, in most books of literary criticism, references to engaged literature are conspicuous by their absence, unless a work is open to some other interpretation such as lyricism, imagism, surrealism or even structuralism, a comparatively new entrant in the jargon of our Urdu literati.

Literature — both poetry and fiction — that talks of the real life around us, the plight of the people, their aspirations and national traumas, has been avoided like the plague. It has been assumed that it would be either against the ideology of Pakistan or Islam, or both, the two being inseparably intertwined in the minds of our anxiety-riddled literary critics.

Going through Urdu literary criticism, one is amazed to notice that compared to other poets, little attention has been paid to the works of even a great celebrity like Faiz Ahmed Faiz; a critic may apply his mind to the imagery in Faiz’s poems, the structure of his lines, but never the message. If you are a writer producing work that simply refuses to be ambiguous and which is hard to fit into a slot of impressionism, symbolism, cubism et al, rest assured your work will not be touched by a barge pole by any critic worth his salt.

Engaged literature is certainly not without remarkable literary worth. But it needs a fresh and imaginative approach and intellectual courage to elicit those literary values and present them to the readers to enhance appreciation and enjoyment of this literature. The Urdu critic does not dare venture into this untrodden territory.

I, myself, am one of the writers who have never been mentioned in Urdu criticism. I have been writing since 1967 when my first collection of verses, Pathar ki Zuban, was published, but you will not find my name in any critical book or article, or any reference to my works in any volume of literary criticism in Urdu. My work reflects Pakistan, in all its positive and negative developments that influence the lives of the people and mirror the new country. Since no one else is likely to attempt summing up my literary oeuvre I have decided to write about it, if only to make a minor correction in this lopsided record of Pakistani literature.

That a young woman of the sharif middle-class could sing of love in her own voice, without pretending to be a man, as was customary in Urdu in the past, reflects the liberation that women and young girls of the middle classes achieved in Pakistan, having migrated from the land of their forefathers and broken the shackles of traditions that made poetry the sole prerogative of men.

Poetry concerned itself with love between men and women, (or men and men) and only men among themselves, indulged in this intellectual luxury. For a young woman to uninhibitedly write love poetry could only be possible in this new homeland.

My second offering, Badan Dareeda, celebrated female sexuality and mourned its suppression and mutilation by social compulsions. In our subcontinent and the Urdu tradition, this too was a specifically Pakistani phenomenon. The verses in both the volumes were written in the decade of the ’60s and are indicative of that era in Pakistan when, after a long spell of Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s martial law, a new class of young men and women was emerging and confronting the old order of intellectual passivity.

My first poem reflected the political reality of Pakistan and was about being an immigrant. This was the status of the Urdu-speaking people in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, where they had to face and handle the resentment of the old inhabitants of the land as slogans of 'Jiye Sindh' resounded and Sindhi nationalism turned into a strong political force. I chose to join in the just aspirations of the Sindhi people in a poem written like a prayer, or a Vedic incantation. The poem is addressed to the River Sindhu, sadly reflecting upon the blind forces sweeping people away in their fury and scattering them over lands unknown to them. It addresses the river:

May you live forever River Sindhu Give us the nectar of life Give us the ability to strike roots at your bed Long live River Sindhu And long may live your land, Sindh Of soft sands and fertile fields You are our Nourisher, Protector of Land, Provider of Grains May you live forever!

The rest of my work explores the events and ambience of Pakistan as I saw it since the days of Z.A. Bhutto. The notorious line,

It is difficult to find a man to love in this wasteland was a comment on the spineless cajolery and mindless adoration exhibited by the Pakistani intelligentsia towards a political leader who had no respect for democratic institutions.

When Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim, playing upon the word paighambar (messenger), I wrote:

They want to ensure that no new message reaches the dishonoured beggars in the lanes of this city

During those years filled with the darkest forebodings, when a rally of the opposition in Rawalpindi was fired upon for four hours, I wrote:

Let us dance, The dance of rage and wounded dignity, The dance of grief and lost hopes. Tear apart this garment of expediency that conceals your real brave self.

It was also during those years that a major army operation was carried out in Balochistan. I wrote a passionate poem against it, warning the powers that be:

To speak the truth, Let us see if we have the mettle, The pen of time is writing the final verdict of history. On these mountains, lest we do not know, Whether we concede it or not, it is our own blood that we are spilling.

The overthrow and subsequent hanging of Z.A. Bhutto did not herald better times. Rather, it threw Pakistan into an abyss of ignominy, bigotry and military terror, with tanks stationed on the roads and people publicly whipped for offences like shouting a slogan. During those long, dark years (unfortunately, it grows darker here every now and then), my verses focused on what was happening in the country. The custodial murder of Nazeer Abbasi, a political worker, the summary military courts, the body-search of passengers in buses, became the themes of my poems. My long poem, ‘Kia Tum Poora Chand Na Daikhogey?’ (Will you not look at the full moon with its scars), consists of seven chapters. It is a narrative of the hopes, despair and struggle of the Pakistani people. These poems were written between 1978 and 1988.

This corpus also includes the pain of exile that many Pakistanis had to suffer during that era, and my exposure to India, my host country, that brought me a new realisation of the beauty and wisdom, as well as the tangled communal issues still unresolved in that sprawling homeland of my ancestors. My poem, ‘Purva Anchal,’ is based on a Buddhist theory of conflict and its resolution.

In a conclusive victory, both sides must win equally.

After my return from a seven-year exile in India, I increasingly turned towards prose and the result were three novels, Zinda Bahar, Godavri and Karachi.

Zinda Bahar is based in Bangladesh, picking up threads of its secession from Pakistan and the trauma for Pakistanis of accepting it as a foreign country. Godavri is based in India and interprets the social and communal conflicts in post-Partition India as the backdrop of the creation of Pakistan and brings out the nature of conflict in this vast multi-ethnic, multi-religious subcontinent. Karachi, comprising of little stories of the inhabitants of this bustling metropolis, traces the rise and enduring popularity of the MQM, and explores the city’s class composition and characteristics. All these developments are seen contextually and the destructive role of the Pakistani establishment is clearly underscored. As Faiz said:

Comments (12) Closed

Sonal Aug 09, 2013 03:22pm


Naveed Tajammal Aug 09, 2013 05:15pm

F.Riaz May be a good Urdu writer & a poet as well,however she cannot claim,that what she writes and language she uses is our literature,i wish she had taken some Time out& studied the root of our language[Lhandha],her usage of Hindi words and Vedic related terms identifying our Sindh river are unfair,the river which she address's as in her write up, lower down is Mehran,and Not Sindh any longer,After Josh e Ab wherein joined the old seven rivers,it is divided in three channels ,Eastern Nara which fell in Rann of Kutch,Mehran the central main channel and western Nara which fell in Manchar lake.

Krish Chennai Aug 09, 2013 09:54pm

This article is very good, but does not seem to have been concluded properly. What happened to the translation of the last verse of Faiz ?

atif Aug 09, 2013 11:36pm

If I wrote a critical book on Pakistani literature or Urdu poetry, it would begin with Fehmida Riaz.

Zafar Malik Aug 10, 2013 12:02am

Thanks Fehmida for sharing your beautiful thoughts with us. Please keep it up, we should hear more from you.

Munir Saami Aug 10, 2013 02:52am

A very important commentary by a very important writer of our times. The term Progressive literature has been declared as a four letter word by the followers of Hasan Askari and his disciples. They still control the narrative and thought in Pakistan.We are proud that far from Pakistan we have celebrated Faiz, Abdullah Hussain, Fehmida Riyaz, Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali and others. We will keep doing it under the banner of Progressive Writers Association Canada. We resolve to carry the torch as long as we could.

H L Aug 10, 2013 04:20am

I apologize for lack of my knowledge in Urdu poetry and history. I don't see any point in this article since I did not get any message or moral from it. May be this article need some background which I am lacking .. Sorry.

arshad sherazi Aug 10, 2013 04:55am

Literary merit and popularity of any work are two separate things,but the success of the work does not require combination of both.Question here arises that how something is received by the readers.If your work is well received and publisher is reprinting it from time to time and your fan base is growing significantly then one day it will be recognized by those who ignored it before.Leaving behind one liner as a legacy even anonymously is enough to satisfy one's ego.

Khurram Awan Aug 10, 2013 03:05pm

Could somebody explain that Why only Urdu literature is considered as a Pakistani literature.? The writer started with a term Pakistani literature but throughout the article only Urdu was considered as the only language of literature in Pakistan.

Someone. Aug 11, 2013 03:41am

@Khurram Awan: Perhaps mainly due to the fact that Urdu is the national language. Moreover, the writer simply aims to emphasize the importance of the literature based in Pakistani areas where the most widely spoken language is Urdu itself.

AA Aug 11, 2013 10:18am

A good review of Urdu literature and its present monopolization by the people who want no progress. If the writer/poetess had explained some reasons for this decay, it would have been great help. Perhaps we would need to wait for the writer to follow it up with a detailed discussion and it is request to the writer to write more, as the discussion appears limited to one writer i.e. herself.

Waqas Luqman Aug 11, 2013 10:44am

I Really didnt Not Understand what the writer is Trying to say...! Is He Complainig about His Work Not Given due Credit or that no one Criticised His Work or if it about the Military against Literature..! Besides he Mentions Women using Male Terms for them While Writing Poems, i dont think this is some sore of Slavery, i think its Sounds Much Better...! By the Way i didnt end up anywhere after Reading the article..!